The first February 14th I remember involves fourth grade, and me, in a radical error, tenderly baking cookies and making valentines for my entire class. Never mind that I was That Girl at my school, and not in any kind of perky Marlo Thomas way. I was the freak: the girl who meowed, who bit, who was allowed not just to pick her own clothing, but to make it, out of torn up parts of my mom's old prom dresses. I was a crooked-banged, missing-toothed, obnoxiously precocious holy terror, dressed in a pink taffeta toga. (See yesterday's post for more reference to being a problem child.) I didn't even want to be. It seemed to be just the way I was made. There was a goddess in my school named Chrissy Worth (and yes, that's her real name — I'm not saying anything bad, and so I think I'll be forgiven — her real name was so ideal for her social status) who had not only perfectly sprayed blonde bangs, but perfectly acid-washed blue jeans, and a perfectly ripped t-shirt that bore the mysterious slogan I Want My MTV. I didn't care about my MTV, whatever it was. I wanted to be Chrissy.
Instead, I was a holy terror, and I couldn't seem to convert into the angel I knew was inside me. One of the things I've learned over the years, something that I should've known to begin with, is that holy terrors still want love. Everyone wants love. I wanted it in a big way, with one J.R., the cutest boy in class, to whom I'd recently shown my affection in the form of a series of fierce pinches. Blood was drawn, up and down J.R.'s lovely nut brown arm. Somehow, after that, I'd become pretty convinced he liked me. I mean, he hadn't tattled. I later learned that the reason the boys wanted to sit next to me was that they were engaged in a betting pool: who could sit next to Maria longest without crying? J.R. was winning. What looked like love was actually J.R. raking in lunch money.
So. Valentine's Day. I arrived, dressed in green (my first mistake) and full of hope. I'd been watching too much television. I was imagining my classmates showering me with candy hearts, and sentiments that echoed the ones printed on the valentines I'd seen for sale. We each had a mailbox on our desks, and through the day you were supposed to secretly deliver your valentines to whomever you liked. I had a very large valentine for J.R. He was a bad boy, and therefore deserved extra glitter. He'd won me by wearing a tiny black motorcycle jacket to school every day (even on field day!!!), and he and the other class bad boy Danny Keister (yes, another real and perfect name, and since this incident took place in the 4th grade, no one can think he's still a bad boy) had recently been busted for smoking cigarettes made out of notebook paper, pine needles, and pine sap. He'd also told me, the day before, that wearing green meant you were horny. I had no idea what horny meant, other than in the context of our classroom lizard and his bumpy skin, but when I asked J.R., he told me it was a good thing.
It should be pointed out that this was a school in the middle of nowhere, and that some of our ideas were at once totally naïve and obscenely advanced. Our logic ran paths similar to those detailed in Richard Lederer's book The Revenge of Anguished English, in which a student states that "the union of sperm and egg is called deception."
J.R. had an equally bad boy older brother, and therefore was full of ideas about sex and longing but clueless about actual implementation. Hence. Green = horniness. I, on the other hand, was well-versed in longing but had no idea what I might be longing for. My dreams of J.R. had mainly to do with the two of us sharing a chair, and maybe, just maybe, if things went well, gnawing on the same pencil.
Hence. Maria, on Valentine's Day, dressed, for J.R.'s benefit, entirely in a green thing. The thing had formerly been a curtain. No longer. Now it had a wide, weird sash, and puffy sleeves. The overall effect was that of a skinned Tyrannosaurus Rex draped over a four-foot-tall lunatic. I was a glitter-covered girl with a big and ridiculous smile, and, by the end of the day, a Valentine's mailbox full of nothing.
This was not really surprising. I adjusted my expectations, turned, and pinched J.R. He said nothing. That was one of the things I liked about him. Strong and silent.
J.R. looked at his posse of boys and nodded once. They looked back. They approached me, their fingers held in pinch-position. And then they each, meticulously, pinched me once. Not very hard. But still. No boy had ever pinched me back. I was so shocked that I just sat there, mouth open.
"Wearing green on Valentine's Day means you get pinched," said J.R.
"Everyone knows that," said J.R.
Yet another thing I'd somehow missed. I put my head down on my desk and considered. It was starting to look seriously unlikely that I'd ever catch up on all of the miscellaneous rules of being human, all the things that other people seemed to just know. Not only that, but I was no one's Valentine. I stayed there for awhile.
J.R. poked my arm, and when I looked up he was gazing at me with something resembling pity. There was a valentine sitting on my desk. Sure, it had someone else's name crossed out on it, and yeah, the lollipop that was supposed to be attached to it was gone, but still. It was a valentine.
I smiled at J.R, and then noticed that my lollipop was in J.R.'s hand, being eaten.
J.R. stuck out his red lollipop-coated tongue at me.
And I pinched him, hard, in the soft spot under his elbow.
It took me a while to learn that lesson.
Stay tuned: tomorrow, something more adult...the perils of writing a book about your love life.
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Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of The Year of Yes. She lives in Seattle with her husband and family.
Books mentioned in this post
Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of The Year of Yes: A Memoir